In Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Or the Royal Slave, the noble traits of the African prince and his beloved princess might resonate with contemporary audiences’ familiarity of romantic fiction. Moreover, Oroonoko’s chivalrous valor and superhuman strength are reminiscent of a noble class of knights devoted to an absolute monarchy. One of the more intriguing aspects of this novella is Oroonoko’s socially compromised space in which he identifies with European culture and considers the white man his equal (and in some instances his inferior) but cannot cross the racial boundaries that prevent him obtaining his freedom from colonial rule. He has been subjected into captivity but as a noble prince with “a nose rising and Roman, instead of African and flat” (10) he is exempt from performing slave labor in the sugar-cane plantations of Surinam. Instead, while he waits for the governor to grant him his freedom, he preoccupies himself by exploring the natural landscape of the New World with the narrator and her companions. Behn demonstrates the ways in which the black prince, though superior in mind and body and chivalrous in disposition, is stripped not only his noble status but also reduced to the level of a common slave who he experiences the brutality of colonial rule.
Like his European companions, Oroonoko views Surinam and its inhabitants as native “others.” Their cultural practice of severing facial body parts to demonstrate courage and win the status of captain warriors, shocks him. However, both the narrator and Oroonoko “esteem” (56) such displays of valor yet the narrator claims in dread and fear: “for my part, I took’em for hobgoblins, or fiends, rather than men; but however their shapes appeared, their souls were very humane and noble … “ (55). Oroonoko appreciates such acts of valor, identifying with not only European culture but also the natives’ culture. Because he inhabits this middle space, he can act as a mediator between the English and Indians: “In this voyage, Caesar [Oroonoko’s western title] begot so good an understanding between the English and Indians, that there were no more fears or heart-burnings during our stay …” (56). Yet, he can neither be classified as an innocuous savage nor a civilized European – the former characterization would overlook his superior strength of mind and character and the later would overlook his nationality and race. He can create common ground between the English and Indians and act as an idealized heroic figure of nobility but cannot fully integrate amongst any group in Surinam, as even the slaves cannot accept a prince in fellowship because of a class barrier.
If one were to create a hierarchy delineating the extent to which the inhabitants of Surinam, namely the natives, colonials, and Africans, conquer nature and the terrain of the New World, Oroonoko would be positioned at the top of the chain while the narrator and her companions at very bottom. The narrator and her group of companions seem to be the most dependent on others to maintain their livelihood; they must trade with the natives to obtain resources and must seek the protection of Oroonoko in order to communicate with the Indians. The Indians, as the narrator suggests, live in perfect harmony with their surroundings and the natural world. They represent the innocence and untainted naivety of the “first parents before the fall,” dwelling in a tranquil and abundant Garden of Eden. This biblical configuration not only homogenizes and simplifies the locals of Surinam but also distinguishes them from the enslaved Africans. The Indians fully utilize the land and extract from it its resources, and thus, become a source of survival for the Europeans as commercial traders while the Africans have no capacity to become skillful traders of the land and are thus relegated to the position of plantation workers. Oroonoko, on the other hand, neither uses the land nor works on it but conquers it for his own entertainment and leisure. He kills tigers and challenges deadly fish by risking death at almost every turn.
Both Caesar and Oroonoko are heroic legends that inhabit idealized narrative spaces in which the hero is a courageous and fearless noble. However, the signifying feature that identifies Oroonoko’s humanity is his nationality and race since it ultimately determines his tragic fate as a rebel slave of colonial oppression.